His name was Burt Bachacat. He lived in a wooden one-storey house with a comedian and a Rastafarian, in a central Auckland suburb. When he ran, which was infrequently, a fatty paunch would swing awkwardly below his torso. When he was picked up, his legs would turn rigid while his body curled into a sharp-spined crescent. He was loyal. He was loved. One day he ran away.
In another life the cat was called Boy Boy. At an unknown time he was dropped off at the Auckland SPCA where he sat in a corner of a room reserved for felines with cat flu. Boy Boy was grey and white with a smudge on his nose from a past fight. He was four years old and had several missing teeth.
Rose Matafeo, comedian, presenter on TVNZ's U Channel and most recent recipient of the Billy T Award, had grown up with cats. There were plenty of strays that filtered in and out of that one-storey wooden house over the years. A couple stayed for longer. Once one got sick so her mother Diane tookit to the vet. They never named any though. If you named a pet, it was yours, Diane said.
Rose grew up with a paralysing fear of dogs and hated any sort of rodent. Rats, mice - both were horrific. In winter last year, she and her boyfriend, fellow-comedian Guy Williams, decided they wanted a pet. Sort of. So they packed into Guy's '98 Saab and jumped on the Southern Motorway.
"I don't think this is our cat," Rose said to Guy at the SPCA in Mangere. "Boy Boy? What sort of stupid name is that?" Guy liked him. Rose needed to think. They left. They thought. They came back. Before she knew it, Boy Boy was being led into a cardboard box and heaved onto her lap in the passenger seat of the car. He jerked and scratched with every pot hole. When they got to Guy's apartment, Boy Boy ran and hid for several days. Rose tried to take cute photos of their new addition to post on Twitter. All she got was a hissing cat staring at her from under a bed.
Boy Boy lived a hermit's lifestyle in that apartment. He slept in a cupboard on top of a box of rolled oats. Guy would go on tour, or back to his family in Nelson, and Boy Boy would head to Rose's place. Guy had always liked the name Ben. Rose thought that was the worst name ever. There were three categories to cat names, she believed. There were ones like Misty, Nibbles, Kitty and Tibbles. Ones like Ben, John, Jarrod and Henry. And then there were pun names. Ones that were named after characters. She always liked Bilbo, but Peter Jackson ruined that for her. Since she was a child Rose had loved Burt Bacharach - the American singer and composer. She was a curious old soul in a 20-year-old's body. The name spilled out. Burt Bachacat.
Guy continued to call the cat Ben. It never responded. But at the sound of 'Burt', the cat formerly known as Boy Boy would spin around, his paunch flying through the air, and come running. After a while, with Guy travelling the country so often, it seemed like a good idea to let Burt stay at Rose's. He turned into a different cat, at that one-storey wooden house. It was where Rose and one of her brothers had been born; the only place she'd ever lived.
On a living-room counter was an award for service to school life that she had been given as a 12-year-old. There were hundreds of ticket stubs to gigs like Jimmy Cliff, The Roots and Bob Marley attached to a door. There were Samoan tapa cloths and a large painting of the Lion of Judah on the walls. It was home. Here was grass underfoot, sunshine and outside air to breathe. Burt could roam and be free.
He turned a little sassy.It sounded crazy, said Rose, but after a while she really thought her cat was actually a human. It sounded like she was an old, weird cat lady, she admitted, but Rose could not get past those eyes - deep green, penetrating things. He would stare so intently at her. He would walk past a mirror in the hallway and look into himself as if he was recognising an entirely different entity - a 1920s mustachioed black-and-white film actor, Rose imagined. (Or perhaps Rose was merely admitting that she had a void in her life that she wanted to be filled with a 1920s mustachioed black and white film actor.)
Burt looked like a Maine Coon cat. They were known for their distinctive size, look and hunting skills. He talked a lot. Rose would talk back. First she started in English. "What are you talking about?" she would ask. "What's the problem?" Slowly she devolved into Burt's own language -a strange, persistent meow, meow. Rose believed she had gained some level of fluency. She could not and did not want to undo what she called "the crazy cat lady thing".
The first time Burt went missing, Rose was on a comedy tour. Her mother, a longtime Rastafarian with long flowing dreadlocks, called to tell her. "Oh yeah, whatever," Rose replied." He will come back." And he did.
On the evening of Rose's 21st-birthday party, her friends handed her a framed pencil portrait of her cat. It was Burt, neck turned, staring out from the paper. And then, almost as if it was a clean transition, Burt was gone. There was, Rose believed, a distinct possibility that his spirit had been captured in the portrait and his earthly body had dissipated.
Two days later the subject of that drawing had still not turned up."Burt!" Rose tweeted on March 2. "If you're reading this, come home - I'm going to watch New Girl and I don't want to recap it for you." Nothing. "Seriously Burt," Rose tweeted on March 3, "come home." Not a sign. "On the front steps with my laptop," Rose tweeted on March 4, "quietly crying and yelling my cat's name."
He had gone missing before, Rose added, but this time it felt horrible. She went to a food court and ate a laksa alone. Rose could not stop crying. It was a strange feeling. It was only now, after Burt and his stupid face had gone missing, that she realised how much company he had been. She would watch movies on her laptop and Burt would come up and perch up with her following all the action. He liked action movies. He liked The Avengers.
Memories came back to her like a curious hazy montage movie scene, with the words "If you get lost between the moon and New York city" playing over the top of it. She made posters, using the portrait of her cat. "BURT BACHACAT," she tweeted. "WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE (preferably alive)." The reward, she said, was 100 hot dogs.
She posted them all over her neighbourhood. When you put up your own posters, you have to believe your pet is doing just fine. Maybe he went on a road trip with the voice of Sally Field in Homeward Bound, she thought. Maybe he went to go find himself, to find a mate, to find a friend to explore the great unknown of the greater Herne Bay/Ponsonby area.
Then, one night when Rose was home alone, the phone rang. "Ummm," the voice on the other end of the line began, "I have your cat here." "Where?" Rose demanded. "At Cox's Bay Reserve. I'm playing with him." Rose felt like screaming: "PUT HIM ON THE PHONE!!!" But she didn't. She rang up her mother and calmly explained: "I'm potentially going to get murdered."
It had been almost a week and she was desperate. She went with Burt's box, some treats and her wits about her. There were no lights in the park when she arrived. It was dark and empty. It was then that she realised this was probably a very terrible idea. She called her mother again and waited for her to arrive. The anonymous caller did not leave a number. She did not get a name. It was a mystery and Burt was still missing. Eight days on, Rose started to hand out flyers to her neighbours. There were some Irish people two doors down who were nice. There was a guy at the other end of the street with a name that started with an 'X'. There was an old lady who seemed very concerned about Rose's predicament.
"How long have you had him?" the lady asked. "Just for a bit," Rose replied. "I've had mine for 15 years." Rose looked over her shoulder to see a particularly miserable hairball staggering along the floor with a look on its face that seemed to implore: "Help me." Next door was another woman who arrived at her porch with a knitted hat tied around her neck. It seemed like a strange accessory but Rose did not question it. The woman took a flyer from Rose and reached into the hat and pulled out a mouse. Then another one. "They just woke up," the woman said. Rose had her hands at her mouth, trying to conceal her shuddering terror. She backed away. It was horrific and Burt was still missing.
She wandered down the road and found a group of loitering cats. She asked if they had seen Burt. None seemed very interested. She set up an email account. email@example.com. If anyone wanted to send Burt a message telling him why it was not cool to leave home, Rose said on Twitter, then email him. And they did. "Do you know how worried your Rose is?" one person asked. Rose created a faux postcard which purported to be from Burt asking, "Do you know the way to San Jose?"
Rose admitted the whole thing had become a little weird. But it was funny. And it was a way to deal with the loss she was feeling. Cats had already become a large part of her comedic repertoire. They were good material. This, though... this was horrible. It had been more than two weeks now and she felt like she had to give up. "My cat is dead," she thought. "I'm going to have to deal with this."
She would miss Burt's loyalty - him sleeping on her bed every night. His enquiring sounds as he entered a room to make sure he was not missing out on anything. His malted hair sitting on his favourite broken chair. His company.
Then, in the following days, Rose asked her closest neighbour to check under her house. It was a last desperate attempt. The neighbour looked in the morning. There was nothing. She checked in the afternoon. She heard something. It was something talking. It was a meow. It was Burt.
Rose was on television, hosting U Live when her mother found out the good news. She didn't want to disturb her daughter while she was working, but this was too good to hold onto. She texted her and live on air, tears came to Rose's eyes.
"MY HEART IS SMILING I LOVE MY CAT EVERYONE GO HUG YR CAT RIGHT NOW," Rose tweeted.
Burt Bachacat was back.
- Sunday Magazine
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